They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a certain 34-year-old striker plying his trade in the heart of Tyne and Wear is defying such logic, showing he still has the bite to wreak havoc against English Premier League defenses.
Now in his 16th season in England’s top flight, Jermain Defoe looks as fresh and determined as ever as he tries to again lift Sunderland out of the footballing abyss known as relegation. After notching a pair of penalties in a 2-2 draw against title-chasers Liverpool at the Stadium of Light, Defoe is now tied with Everton’s Romelu Lukaku for fourth in the EPL scoring charts with 11 goals.
Defoe’s fitness has proven to be just as sharp as his eye for goal, playing all but eight minutes of Sunderland’s 20 games so far this campaign. That can be attributed in part to his regiment of daily spinach drinks, kale and nettle smoothies, green tea and caffeine consumption on match days while avoiding liquor, cigarettes, and several other vices. With age comes a necessary adjustment in everyday routine and Defoe has made that transition seamlessly as he approaches the twilight of his career. Many would also credit his resurgence to his devout faith and a strong resilience in the face of adversity, including the murder of his brother and grime artiste, Jade Defoe, in 2009 as well as losing his father, Jimmy, to throat cancer on the eve of representing his country at Euro 2012.
Defoe’s long road in the Premier League started with a sole appearance for Harry Redknapp’s West Ham in the 2000/01 season, which he largely spent on loan at then third-tier side, Bournemouth, scoring 18 goals overall and in a record-tying 10 straight matches. Redknapp finally gave the striker a sustained run in the first team, with Defoe notching 18 league goals over two seasons. However, after West Ham were relegated to the First Division after the 2002/03 season, Defoe handed in a transfer request and eventually got his wish as he was shipped off to Tottenham Hotspur midway through the 2003/04 campaign.
At White Hart Lane, he would become a cult hero among Spurs fans as he scored 43 league goals in five seasons in his first go-round while also helping them to back to Europe as they reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup, losing to eventual winners, Sevilla.
Following a season-and-a-half stint at Portsmouth, where he reunited with Redknapp, Defoe was back in North London midway through the 2008/09 season. The following year validated Tottenham’s decision to bring back the England international as he bagged 18 league goals, spearheading the club to Champions League qualification for the first time and reached the quarterfinals of said competition in 2010/11. He finished his Spurs career with 91 league goals in 276 appearances, good for fifth all-time, and scored a club record 23 goals in European competition.
Defoe’s last season at Spurs in 2013/14 saw his playing time drastically reduced under manager Andre Villas-Boas and, with the striker nearing the end of his prime amidst little interest from other top division clubs, he headed to Canada to take up a lucrative offer with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. Despite scoring 11 goals in 19 games for the club, what was built up by TFC’s public relations machine and local media alike as a ‘Bloody Big Deal’ turned into a bloody big mess as they missed the playoff by 11 points and rumours were rife that Defoe was insistent on going back to England due to homesickness and constant fan criticism.
Those rumours proved true and, despite Redknapp’s best efforts for yet another reunion at Queen’s Park Rangers, Defoe agreed a deal with fellow relegation strugglers Sunderland in January 2015. It did not take too long for him to etch his name in club folklore as he scored a stunning volley with his weaker left foot to win the Tyne-Wear derby against arch-rivals Newcastle United, falling to the turf and crying while giving his new fans its most joyful moment as they eventually avoided relegation.
Last season, Defoe proved he has quite a bit left in the tank, scoring 15 times in the league as Sunderland avoided relegation on the penultimate match day of the season for the second year running. Add his 11 goals this season and Defoe is now one of eight men in EPL history to score 150 or more times (154 to be exact) and stands just 21 goals behind Thierry Henry, arguably the Premier League’s greatest player.
Defoe has never been known for grace, shifty feet and involving himself in build-up play like his former Arsenal rival, operating as more of a poacher for the majority of his career. While Defoe seems rather unspectacular at his job due to his lack of flair, his understanding of positioning and a penchant for being in the right place at the right time has led to a long-lasting and successful run in English football. Both qualities are especially valuable considering he plays for a team that usually sees little of the ball, and relies on strong movement in transition and set pieces to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Sunderland are a point adrift in the relegation zone despite Defoe’s exploits, but as we’ve seen with them in the past, it is not how you start but how you finish. It would again prove quite the irony if this old dog – with Dominican and St. Lucian heritage – from east London kept the Black Cats in the Premiership for another season.